This was the kind of moment Garth Snow imagined when he drafted John Tavares back in the summer of 2009. When you have the first overall selection, you want a player capable of lifting a team up and carrying them on his shoulders. Today, that came to pass and with it, the New York Islanders ended a 23-year drought without a playoff series victory.
Tavares came through twice to lead the Islanders past the Florida Panthers in Game 6 of their opening-round series. With his team less than a minute away from losing the game in regulation, Tavares poked home the second rebound of a shot by Nick Leddy past Roberto Luongo who had stopped both Leddy and Nikolay Kulemin just seconds earlier.
Then, in double overtime, Tavares grabbed his own rebound and beat Luongo to the far post for a wraparound after the veteran goalie had come far out to cut off the angle of the initial shot. The game and the series were over. For the first time since Al Arbour coached the Islanders, they had won a playoff series.
“I moved the puck up quick,” Tavares said. “I saw the defense was a little deep in the zone and I just sort of shot and Luongo made a good stop. He came out and challenged me and when I got the rebound I realized how hard he came out and I just tried to really make sure I had control of the puck and make sure it goes in.”
The final score was Islanders 2, Panthers 1, but it almost seemed like it was John Tavares 2, Florida Panthers 1.
While the moment was special, Tavares remained his usual cool and humble self after the game. “At this time of year, you want to play your best hockey,” Tavares said. “You just try to lay it all out there. I trust in my ability and want to make a difference.”
One knock on Tavares was that his teams had never won a playoff series in his NHL career. Now, that tag has been removed and he is free to move on to the next challenge.
“Obviously, a lot of guys have been here a long time and we’ve got to get over this hump, push forward and take that second step,” Tavares added. “The fans have been dying for this, they’ve been through so much and I’ve been through six years before this year and to finally be able to come through for them.”
Tavares’ teammates were also quick to acknowledge how important he is to the team. “He’s one of the best players in the league,” defenseman Travis Hamonic said. “I mean that’s as clutch as a performance that you can find, ties it up and then scores the winner. Insert whatever words you want to, to describe him, that’s what he is, he’s an amazing player. ”
Long-time teammate Kyle Okposo added, “He works extremely hard, he works harder than anybody else in the league. To see him go through what he did this year, the ups and downs and over the last four weeks he’s elevated his game. Tonight, we didn’t have our stuff the first couple of periods but he was able to make those plays. That’s why he works as hard as he does and that’s why he wears the “C”. He’s such a great player and that’s why it’s great to see him succeed.”
Islanders head coach Jack Capuano also realizes what number 91 means to his team’s success. “He’s a pretty reserved guy. He’s grounded and he’s very humble in the way that he goes about his business on a daily basis,” Capuano said after the game. “Whether it’s good days or bad days, there’s a calmness to him, that he knows he has to lead by example and that’s what you get from 91. He’s not one of those guys that’s going to be “rah rah”. When he plays the right way, it’s contagious for our group and I just think that’s what he’s done since I’ve been here. He’s got great creativity as we know but he’s a great leader for our hockey club.”
While Tavares and his teammates are enjoying their big win over the Panthers, they realize there still a long road ahead to reach hockey’s ultimate goal.
“We want to keep this thing going,” Tavares said. “We’ve got a special group and we believe we can do something special.”
He’s already accomplished something special, ending a 23-year gap between playoff wins for the Islanders franchise. But there’s even more on John Tavares’ mind.
“I want to be a part of bringing the Islanders back to what they once were,” he said. Tavares and the Islanders just took the first big step on that road. Don’t bet against him and his team taking another.